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Antioxidants Explained

May 01, 2018 12:00AM ● By Brian Saucedo
By Kelsey Casselbury

Demystifying the science behind free radicals, oxidants and how plant-based foods can fend off the damage they cause.

When learning more about antioxidants, it seems like the questions just keep coming. These antioxidants protect your body against oxidants—but what are oxidants? Answer: Oxidants are free radicals that occur in the environment and naturally in your body—but what are free radicals? Even if you know that antioxidants are beneficial and you want to incorporate them into your diet, it’s just not that simple to truly understand the concept. Let’s break it down. 

Take a Seat

To really understand free radicals, we would have to break out the chalkboard and revisit your high school chemistry and physiology courses—and who really wants that? So, this is as simple as it can get: A free radical is an atom or group of atoms that is unstable (due to a lack of an unpaired electron) and highly reactive. These atoms don’t like to be single, so they grab the
first electron that they see, even if the electron is already dating another atom. This turns it into an oxidant. 

Here’s the problem: When these oxidants are too prominent, it begins a process known as oxidative stress. This damages your body’s cells, not only causing symptoms of aging (like wrinkles) but also increasing the risk of a variety of diseases. You can’t avoid oxidants entirely; your body creates them to fight off viruses and harmful microbes. However, certain habits and lifestyle choices can increase your exposure, such as being surrounded by air pollution, smoking, excessive drinking, and fried foods. 

Protect Yourself


Nature, as clever as it is, has a way to fight off these damaging oxidants through the intake of antioxidants (Apparently humans aren’t as clever as nature, at least when it comes to naming schemes). They also occur naturally, but only in plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables,
coffee, tea, wine, and chocolate. 

Scientists and nutrition enthusiasts tend to make a big deal out of them (for good reason!) so you have probably heard of a few of these compounds—for example, flavanols in chocolate, resveratrol in grapes and wine, beta-carotene in carrots and sweet potatoes and lycopene in tomatoes. These antioxidant compounds prevent or stop cell damage caused by antioxidants.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Despite all the confusing names and chemistry lessons, antioxidants seem pretty simple. Just eat and drink a ton of antioxidants (coffee, red wine and chocolate? Check, check, and check!)
and you won’t have a problem with oxidants or oxidative stress, right? 

Oh, how you wish that were true. Your body actually needs a healthy balance of oxidants and antioxidants, and it’s possible to overload on the latter, causing an issue called antioxidant stress (Sound familiar?) That typically happens when you take an antioxidant supplement, not when you consume a lot in your diet. As previously mentioned, your body does naturally produce free radicals for beneficial reasons, and too many antioxidants can wipe them out. 

So, here’s the game plan: Skip the antioxidant supplements. Just put them back on the shelf and walk away—all the way to the grocery store, where you can pick up the healthful foods that offer not only antioxidants but plenty of other necessary nutrients. Enjoy your coffee, red wine, green tea and all those antioxidant-rich, colorful fruits and vegetables such as berries, nuts, grapes
and whole grains. How deliciously healthy. 

Top 10 Antioxidant-Containing Food and Drink Based on weight

Goji berries • Wild blueberries • Dark chocolate • Pecans • Boiled artichokes • Elderberries
• Kidney beans • Cranberries • Blackberries •Cilantro

Top 10 Antioxidant-Containing Herbs and Spices
Cloves • Cinnamon • Oregano • Turmeric •Cocoa • Cumin • Dried parsley • Basil • Ginger • Thyme